CHICAGO — The looming threat of a Chicago Teachers Union walkout confounds rational work-a-day folks who can’t understand why a government contract packed with a 16 percent pay hike is strike-worthy.
It’s about more than money, CTU leaders say. Teachers are fighting to improve kids’ education, demanding the Chicago school board put a promise of staffing of nurses and social workers in writing. At least that’s the prevailing talking point spouted by CTU boss Jesse Sharkey, a bully who preaches union solidarity while tooling around Chicago in a non-union Telsa and living like the wealthiest 1 percent.
But is he telling the truth? The public deserves to know. I figure that’s why Mayor Lori Lightfoot, sensing news reports haven’t done a good job communicating proposed contract details offered up by a broke school district, launched a website with Chicago Public Schools’ latest best offer.
Sharkey and union vice president Stacey Davis Gates whined about that while tossing out a red herring to grab headlines.
“This new website does not replace open bargaining, which we’d still like to see,” Sharkey said in a news release. “Those who are most impacted — including more than 25,000 teachers, paraprofessionals and clinicians and the families they serve — deserve a seat at the table, and livestreaming bargaining would be a step towards that.”
Sharkey and Gates know full well CTU agreed to private contract talks back in 2018 when Rahm Emanuel was mayor. And they’ve been using the privacy of backroom negotiations to their advantage by making public declarations that only people in the room would know to be true.
Maybe Sharkey and Gates pitched livestream negotiations because they’re worried there might be public backlash if taxpayers knew what the CTU is really fighting for behind closed doors.
Maybe the ambitious union leaders want to be YouTube stars. It’s difficult to tell.
As things stand, the secret contract talks have allowed CTU bosses, and their Twitter trolls, to craft a narrative of contract-talk half-truths.
Publicly, CTU leaders say they’re bargaining for improved staffing ratios, adding sustainable schools on the South and West sides of town, increases in minority staffing and better sanctuary protections for immigrant students. Now Sharkey and Gates want people to believe that contract talks boils down to a couple key issues: Pay hikes for support staff and mandated staffing levels for school nurses and social workers. And if they don’t get those concessions in writing — because they don’t trust Lightfoot’s public promise to address those staffing issues in the CPS budget that would include a 16 percent pay hike — teachers will walk a picket line.
Even if you think that’s strike-worthy cause, know this: CTU’s bargaining team is fighting for political might and work rules that a reasonable person could argue benefit and pad teacher pockets at the expense of students, according to documents obtained by Patch.com.
The most glaring of these efforts is CTU’s demand for daily 30-minute teacher planning sessions that can’t be controlled by school principals. CTU bosses will tell you teachers desperately need the prep time to better serve students and parents. What they don’t talk about — the reality of what they’re asking for — is they’re pushing to steal 30 minutes of instructional time away from elementary school students.
It even says so in the “CTU Members Only” bargaining priorities memo I got my hands on. Under the heading “Increased Prep Time,” the CTU describes their priority this way: “Restore 30 minute morning prep in elementary schools (shorten day for students.)”
Let me translate: CTU wants the 16 percent pay hike so long as teachers get to spend less time every day teaching grade school kids.
And that’s not all. CTU negotiators are currently arguing that the union should have control of the CPS calendar, and they’re even pushing for a provision that would require the board of education to lobby for affordable housing and rent control.
And then there’s a long list of work-rule demands that would nickel-and-dime taxpayers including paying teachers double for snow days and a 30 percent increase in paid time off. CTU wants special education teachers to get paid extra on days they’re already working if a principal asks them to cover for absences. They’re even demanding teachers be allowed to bank paid bereavement time off if a death in the family occurs on school holiday. CTU wants CPS to let teachers bank unlimited unused sick days every year that can be used “without limitation” and counted to bolster their pensions.
The CTU’s contract demands also call for eliminating the CPS requirement teachers have a doctor’s note when they call off work with an illness. That requirement was put in place to prevent misuse of sick days, which everybody knows is a longstanding government worker tradition. Each demand is in writing, and secret (until now) because CTU cut a deal with Rahm to negotiate in private, which allows both sides to sell bogus spin to the press.
Sharkey and Gates didn’t respond to emailed questions about the ongoing contract demands that don’t get mentioned in CTU press releases, talking points and Tweets.
Instead, Sharkey’s crew has made ridiculous public claims that aim to rile up the CTU’s rank-and-file, including the preposterous assertion that Lightfoot — a reformer who trounced the CTU-backed status-quo candidate, Cook County Democratic Party boss Toni Preckwinkle — is like Emanuel, a political villain who must be defeated.
What’s closer to the truth is that CTU leadership’s claim their strike threat has everything to do with improving Chicago kids’ education is a half-truth, at best.
This year’s CTU strike threat certainly doesn’t feel like 2012, when Emanuel tried to bully former union boss Karen Lewis and rumors of massive school closings swirled.
It does, however, seem like a power play by ultra-political union leadership that donated hundreds of thousands of dollars in union dues to Preckwinkle’s failed mayoral campaign. After all, it’s not a secret that CTU hoped a Preckwinkle win would give them City Hall clout they hoped would lead to CPS’ capitulation to their demands.
And maybe that’s because the public doesn’t know how CTU contract negotiations are playing out behind closed doors. Ironically enough, a cure for cutting through the CTU’s propaganda and City Hall’s spin would be for Lightfoot to give in to CTU’s blustery call to broadcast union contract negotiations online.
It’s not a unique idea. The Jefferson County Public School District in suburban Denver has posted a live stream of teacher contract negotiations on Vimeo since 2016.
In Chicago, a city with a long history of backroom deals that benefit politicians and unions more than the citizens they serve, taxpayers deserve contract-talk transparency.
But the looming strike threat isn’t the only reason Lightfoot should agree to Sharkey’s phony demand for live streaming negotiations. Before #MeToo became a movement against sexual assault, the same phrase referred to a “most favored nations” clause found in contracts that means when a union within a government’s jurisdiction gets a benefit, the other unions get it, too.
By giving the CTU the benefit of live-streamed negotiations, Lightfoot would set a precedent that could make public contract negotiations with other unions, as well.
Think of it. For the first time, Chicagoans would get to see how union contracts that cost so much money, and trouble, get made.
Taxpayers would get to witness CTU’s march toward school shutdowns in real time, and have a chance to watch other union bosses defend contract clauses that prohibit things like, say, investigations into police officer misconduct without an affidavit.
Lightfoot should call Sharkey’s bluff.
Roll the cameras, let the light shine in.
Mark Konkol, recipient of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for local reporting and Emmy-nominated producer, was a producer, writer and narrator for the “Chicagoland” docu-series on CNN. He was a consulting producer on the Showtime documentary, “16 Shots.”
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